Friday, June 4, 2010

American Cattle and the Longhorn: A Snapshot

No history of the cattle industry in America can be told without mentioning the major influences of Texas, and the Texas Longhorn. Back in the days before the arrival of the white man, America’s cow was the buffalo (American bison). Texas was the home of the birth of the American beef industry, and the Longhorn was the original genetic melting pot for all of the great American cattle herds.

In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought a small herd of long-horned Spanish cattle to Santa Domingo in the Caribbean. These were cattle of Moorish-Andalusian ancestry, originally from North Africa, and adopted by Spain; they were tough cattle that could handle the ocean passage. These Andalusians (AKA “black cattle”) were occasionally able to escape captivity and go feral, and once in the wild they thrived, growing big-boned, long-legged, lean, and swift, with immense horns providing ominous offensive weapons and defensive protection. They also acquired a reputation as being particularly ornery and clever.

In 1521 Gregorio Villabos imported cows from Santa Domingo into Mexico, and in 1565 Menendez de Aviles brought some of them into Florida. The English, while colonizing North America, brought their native cattle in 1623, and as they moved west and south so did their cattle, pulling wagons and plows and providing milk. Some maintain the big horns, speckled colors, and body types were derived from the Longhorn Herefords of England. Others believe the blue and roan speckled stock reflected early Durham (shorthorn) British influence. The Spanish breeds were represented by drab, earth tone colors.

In 1690, the first herd of about 200 head of cattle was driven northeast from Mexico to a Spanish mission near the Sabine River, in what would later become Texas. The cattle were much better survivors than the priests and the vaquero ranchers who accompanied them, and the cattle escaped domestication, went feral, rapidly multiplied, and became an adapted native species.

In 1821, cattle brought into Texas from North Carolina began to intermingle with the Spanish and English cattle; American Indians had developed their own hybrid cattle from the Spanish and English strains. Many of the first settlers of Texas came from the South to raise cotton, and they brought with them a few cows, mostly of British or hybrid breeds. These cows mixed with the Spanish breeds already in Texas and soon grew into considerable herds. Although “Mexican” cattle of the long-horned variety, known as “Criollo”, provided the basic strain, historian J. Frank Dobie estimated the Texas Longhorns evolved from 80% Spanish influence and 20% mongrel (British hybrid) influence.

These Texas cattle had long legs, lanky bodies, with big, tough feet built for speed. It took a fast horse with a skilled rider to outrun a Texas Longhorn and live to tell about it. They could withstand blizzards, blazing heat, droughts, hail and dust storms, and attacks by predators and Indians. They lost little weight on long trail drives, and could forge fast-flowing rivers. Longhorns weren’t prone to stampede, and were easier to control when they did. They didn’t need large amounts of water to survive and could forage nicely on the native growth. They were prolific breeders, and a strong sense of smell made it easy for the cow to find her calf, which she would ferociously defend.

There was probably no meaner creature in Texas than an upset Longhorn bull. His ancestors were the fighting bulls of Spain, and the slightest provocation would turn him into an aggressive, dangerous, and uncontrollable enemy. His razor sharp horns could measure over eight feet long from tip to tip and could rip open a challenger with ease. They possessed incredible strength, and when two bulls met, a fight to the death often ensued. Only a crafty and well-armed cowboy on a smart mount stood a chance against a Longhorn bull.

As the population of cattle (and people) increased in Texas, small acreage ranchers ranged their cattle primarily on vacant public lands. Truth be told, some ranchers with thousands of head of cattle didn’t own a single acre of land. Some opportunists who moved to Texas invested all their money in cattle and depended on the open range for pasture. If you had no money you could get your start by branding calves “on share” for other ranchers. For every four they branded for the rancher, they got one freebie for their own herd.

J. Frank Dobie, noted Texan humorist, writer, and historian, author of The Longhorn:
“There is a widespread idea, even among people who should know better, that trail driving originated after the Civil War, when a lone Texas herd headed for some vague point 'north of 36.' As a matter of fact, on the very day the Texans whipped the Mexicans at San Jacinto, in 1836, a herd of Texas longhorns from Taylor White's ranch west of the Neches River was trailing for New Orleans. Cattle had been trailed out of Texas before that. Through the 'forties they were trailed north into Missouri and also to Louisiana markets. There is a record of one herd's trailing to New York, about 1850, and through the ‘fifties thousands of steers were driven across the continent to California. The trailing business attained volume and became well organized when in 1867 Abilene, Kansas, opened as a market.”

At the end of the Civil War there were an estimated 5 million cattle in Texas, and many were unclaimed mavericks, just waiting to be branded and claimed by returning soldiers. There were so many cattle in the state that the market was seriously depressed, but up north and back east, cattle were getting top dollar. Cattle started flowing north on the Chisholm, Loving-Goodnight, Shawnee, Abilene, and the Dodge City trails until the market was saturated and the ranges up there were fully stocked with herds. The drives established the cowboy as a folk hero of mammoth proportions, while the big money to be made, general lawlessness, and the lack of brands created his nemesis: the cattle rustler. Between 1866 and 1890, some 10 million cattle were driven on the trails out of Texas. The period between 1870 and 1880 was known as the “Beef Bonanza”.

1873 was an ominous year for the Longhorn…the first patent for barbed wire was issued. By 1885 few of the pure-blooded Longhorns remained in Texas because so many had been sent up the trail, and the residual Longhorns were being crossbred with newer breeds like the Durham and the Hereford from Europe. Around the same time the great trail drives started petering-out due to deeded and fenced property, rail transport, farms and field crops, and rapidly developing towns cluttering the trails. In 1890 the USDA estimated the nation's cattle population at 60 million head, with most of them containing a majority percentage of Texas Longhorn blood.

By 1900 even more European breeds, like the Shorthorn and the Angus, came to the US, and because of the Longhorn’s desirable and excellent mothering ability, the new strains were bred-up to purebreds in this country from a native Longhorn base. Pure Longhorn blood was rapidly being bred out of existence. Tallow, the main ingredient in candles (still the main source of light for most back then) came from rendering animal fat. Soaps, lubricants and cooking also required tallow. Early beef processing plants were called “Hide and Tallow” companies, and meat was merely an economic by-product. All of this cattle migration and mayhem was to produce tallow and leather, not meat. The lean Longhorns rendered 80% less than the other breeds…another reason for the breed’s demise. There were more buffalo in the US than Longhorns at the turn of the century.

By 1930, most of the open range was fenced, highways were going in, fields were plowed, and cattle barons selected their favorite breeds for fatter cattle. Six unique strains of Longhorns had been isolated and bred by individual ranchers who realized their value and feared their loss. In 1927 the U. S. government recognized how close the Longhorns were to extinction, and established a seventh strain (using genetics from the remaining six strains) at wildlife refuges in Oklahoma and Nebraska. In 1931 Sid Richardson, J. Frank Dobie, and Graves Peeler selected and established a herd for the State of Texas. By 1960 there were only 1500 head of pure Longhorns in existence, and 500 of them were in national parks and zoos, the rest were in private herds.

Today Longhorns have bounced back from the brink of extinction. Drive down any rural road in Central Texas and you’ll see small herds of the breed frolicking in pastures and contentedly chewing their cud. Butchers are once more offering Longhorn steaks at specialty gourmet and farmer’s markets. The noble breed from the Lone Star State built the US cattle industry into what it is today, and the nation’s beef eaters and barbecuers, at least in Texas anyway, would be completely lost without it.

Mick Vann ©

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